Conclusion: patronage, periodization, and the perception of early Netherlandish painting

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Artistic innovation in painting techniques must surely be seen as the primary factor driving the introduction of the ars nova. It could not have developed, however, without finding audiences who admired its effects and perceived its persuasive representations as intrinsically worthwhile. As I have suggested throughout the course of this essay, where the patrons of early Netherlandish panels can be identified, they most often came from what might be called prosperous burgher classes, including merchants, craftsmen, civic leaders, and court functionaries. These 'middle' classes continued to dominate the patronage of panel painting throughout the fifteenth century, and it could be argued that painting as a medium embodied the type of values such people would be likely to admire: the expansion of the new painting parallels the rise of what Herman Pleij has called 'bourgeois ideals' in late medieval urban literature, such as practicality, wit, hard work, and self-reliance.209 As Craig Harbison has discussed in some depth, for the most part the nobility were not among the most important panel patrons, at least beyond the genre of portraiture.210

Nevertheless, the Burgundian court was surely crucial in fostering creative interaction between noble and urban values. Jan van Eyck's court positions—first to John of Bavaria, count of Holland and Hainault, then to duke Philip the Good—gave him the job security that enhanced his pursuit of artistic innovation, even though almost of all of his surviving works were made not for the duke but for middle-class urban patrons (many with court connections of some kind). For the duke he is recorded as painting a mappa mundi and a prospective bride portrait of Isabella of Portugal (both lost), and he likely also had oversight of decorative work on the duke's palaces, but the court position clearly left him plenty of time to work for other patrons.211 It is possible that the Annunciation in Washington (Fig. 23) was one wing of a devotional triptych painted for the duke's foundation in Champmol; the evidence for this is heavily speculative,212 although if true, it could be significant that this is the only extant Van Eyck work other than the Ghent Altarpiece to contain any gold within the picture. (Alternatively the inclusion of gilded rays may simply support the subject matter, which appears nowhere else among Van Eyck's painted panels, where the inscriptions of Gabriel and Mary have been gilded, (Fig. 27).) Whoever the patron(s), they had to settle for painted rather than gilded brocade, and the future of the medium lay there, in the skilful application of paint rather than gold leaf.213 Such ability quickly became sufficiently valued to distinguish the court painters of the ensuing centuries such as Titian, Rubens, Velazquez, and Van Dyck, who did not need to employ expensive materials to be fully appreciated by their patrons.214 In Italy written texts provided a clear account of how such values were promoted, but in the fifteenth-century Netherlands only the works themselves reveal an analogous outlook. More work remains to be done to map early Netherlandish painting into the processes of evolution in artistic practices, diversification of patronage over time, and how these diversifications have been retrospectively perceived by historians.

The discipline of art history, practiced mostly by people who have acquired PhDs and teach in universities, has unsurprisingly inherited the tendency to perceive talent and originality as intrinsically valuable, a predisposition going back at least as far as Vasari. This must be inextricably connected with academe's long-standing appreciation of canonical paintings over objects like tapestries that were skilfully made but based on other artists' designs: scholars naturally tend to admire those who invent and plan above those who only execute. Understanding the history of art history's biases provides an important corrective to automatic identification with the painters' perspective. Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge not only the skill but also the distinctive conceptual innovation of early Netherlandish painting, which, as I hope to have demonstrated here, lends itself to interpretation as a pivotal moment in the history of western art, even if in most other respects these panels remained fully immersed in long-standing traditions of thought and practice. The artists themselves may not have been thinking about their place in a chronological tradition of art, but I believe they did conceive of their work as a distinctive departure. Retrospective impositions of period divisions onto the past, such as 'medieval' and 'modern', can never of course accurately account for historical reality, but they might sometimes serve as useful constructs—and occasionally they may even connect with perceptions that existed at the time.

208 Hélène Verougstraete-Marcq and Roger van Schoute, Cadres et supports dans la peinture flamande aux 15e et 16e siècles (Heure-le-Romain, 1989), especially 82-88; Verougstraete and Schoute, 'Frames and supports of some Eyckian paintings'. The frame of Rogier van der Weyden's Last Judgment (Fig.14-15) is original, though partially cut through, heavily re-worked and repainted/regilded; the frame of the Braque Triptych (Fig. 19) is also original but re-gilded (see Veronee-Verhaegen, L'Hôtel-Dieu de Beaune, 25, and Lorentz and Comblen-Sonkes, Musée du Louvre, Paris III, 134, 136).

209 Herman Pleij, 'With a view to reality: the rise of bourgeois-ideals in the late middle ages', in Flanders in a European Perspective: Manuscript Illumination around 1400 in Flanders and Abroad. Proceedings of the International Colloquium, Leuven, 7-10 September 1993, ed. Maurits Smeyers and Bert Cardon (Leuven, 1995), 3-24.

210 Harbison, Jan van Eyck, 22-28, 125; see also Wijsman, 'Patterns in patronage'.

211 Marina Belozerskaya, 'Jan van Eyck's lost Mappamundi: a token of fifteenth-century power politics,' Journal of Early Modern History 4 (2000): 45-84; Harbison, Jan van Eyck, 22-28.

212 Lorentz, 'Les Rolin et les ?Primitifs flamands?', 145-46.

213 Geelen and Steyaert, Imitation and Illusion, 39.

214 On the social and cultural status of court artists see Martin Warnke, The Court Artist: On the Ancestry of the Modern Artist (Cambridge & New York, 1993), esp. 34-45, 143-55, 197-212.